15th Apr2013

‘Warriors of the Steppe: Myn Bala’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Assylkhan Tolepov, Aliya Telebarisova, Kuralay Anarbekova, Ayan Utepbergenov | Written by Muhammad Mamyrbekov, Javik Sizdikov, Timur Zhaksylykov | Directed by Akan Satayev

Myn-Bala

It’s a story we can all relate to: boy sees entire tribe slaughtered by enemy warriors, goes into hiding with survivors and becomes the greatest freedom fighter his country’s ever seen. Oh, and he also meets a girl, though that’s not terribly important.

Warriors of the Steppe: Myn Bala is the story of the oppression of the native Kazakhstani people by the Dzungars (a Mongol tribe descended from Genghis Khan) in the early 18th century and how a young boy grew into a powerful yet compassionate leader. It’s an aspect of world history that I knew almost nothing about before so there’s a vague history lesson among all the arrow-slinging and speech-giving but I suspect that pinpoint accuracy was left by the wayside in favour of spending the $12 million government-supported budget on as many village-razings and complex hangings as they could afford.

Indeed, within the first three minutes we’re shown our hero Sartai’s motivation become crystal clear when as a boy his village is burned to the ground and his parents killed in front of him. Escaping into some tall grass with a small group of survivors, we skip forward an unspecified number of years to see Sartai having grown into a strapping young man now skilled in archery, riding and swordplay who spends most of his time fooling around on the plains with his mates. But since when does that lifestyle ever last? Soon enough the brutes come a-calling once more, and over the course of various skirmishes, arguments and deals with neighbouring tribes Sartai builds an army strong enough to stand against their tyrannical oppressors. Did I mention that he meets a girl as well?

The production and costume design feels authentic and the fight choreography is solid, but it all just feels a bit too small. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by mega-budget Hollywood actioners or that I just simply wasn’t drawn in by the story – a problem compounded by a pretty sloppy subtitle job on my screener (which we have been assured have been corrected for the retail release) – but large, dialogue-heavy chunks of Warriors of the Steppe felt like padding to justify the scope of the movie, which makes for itchy viewing. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to make something on the scale of Mongol or 300, but while $12 million may be the biggest budget Kazakhstan’s seen for a local picture, it just can’t buy the legions of extras and high-stakes action it needs for an audience to buy it. The film also suffers from a well-intentioned but plodding script (if my dubious subtitling is to be believed), as  our hero is given many moments that prove him to be more courageous and merciful than his kinsmen but it all feels a little by the numbers and a great many campfire arguments and war-room discussions could easily have been lifted with little to no damage to the story.

Credit where credit is due: the cinematography does capture the breathtaking vistas of Kazakhstan’s countryside rather beautifully, and one dream sequence involving Sartai’s deceased parents (and a traitor who will remain unnamed) was compelling enough, if oddly reminiscent of similar scenes in Gladiator - except, y’know, way less corny.

That said, most of the scenes do take place in very similar locales, and the novelty of nomadic encampments and mountain-view horsing around soon wears thin. Obviously it must have been difficult to implement varied locations given Warriors of the Steppe’s period setting (hence the enemy’s gilded tent interiors offering a contrast, presumably), but the fact remains that much of the film blurs into variations on one or two scenes which really detracts from any sense of progression the filmmakers  might want to impart.

Oh, and speaking of progress: Sartai meets a girl who he wants to marry. He says she’s clever and pretty and that she’ll make a good wife, and we pretty much have to take his word on it because she doesn’t get a great deal to do or say other than bear Sartai’s sprog at the end. Well, there is one sequence where the other female character, Sartai’s warrior buddy, sacrifices herself so that she can escape their attackers on horseback, despite being a much less interesting character. I was really expecting a whole Some Kind of Wonderful romance subplot with Friend Girl, which would have been at least a little more equal than simply having Sartai fall for the Walking Womb, but I guess I’m not too up on my Kazakhstani sexual politics.

That aside, Warriors of the Steppe has some fine action and gorgeous landscape photography as well as a fairly universal ‘David and Goliath’ theme, but suffers from overwrought dialogue, a pace-less plot and far too many silly hats.

Warriors of the Steppe: Myn Bala is out on DVD May 13th, courtesy of 101 Films.

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3 Responses to “‘Warriors of the Steppe: Myn Bala’ Review”

  • claire

    I just watched the movie today, and couldn’t agree more with u. The cinematography is breathtaking but the scenes and dialogues wore me out sometimes, and I hate zere lol. My fave acene is korlan’s heroic but exceedingly stupid sacrifice

  • Wayne Lo

    In the film, based on the outfit of Dzungars, they are not Mongolian. They are from Manchuria from Qing dynasty (清朝), the last Chinese dynasty. Here is a clip from the wiki: ” The Ten Great Campaigns of the Qianlong emperor from the 1750s to the 1790s extended Qing control into Central Asia. While the early rulers maintained Manchu culture, they governed using Confucian styles and institutions of bureaucratic government.”

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